image: Wikimedia commons (link).
January 15 is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., born this day in 1929.
Rather than listening to what others say about him, it might be best to listen to what he himself said in his own powerful voice.
This is especially true because there are certain forces at work which seek to contain his message within boundaries of their own definition, and for their own purposes -- just as there were during his own lifetime.
But Dr. King's message defies such boundaries and flows far beyond them.
One of his most powerful speeches is Beyond Vietnam, delivered on April 4, 1967.
The injustices and issues he addresses in this speech have only accelerated since the day he spoke against them on that day, nearly 50 years ago.
Below are some quotations from that speech -- but the entire speech deserves to be studied carefully, and if possible heard in Dr. King's own voice, as do all his other messages (here is a link to text versions of many of his addresses).
Here is a link to the text of the speech.
Here is a link to the original typewritten text of the speech showing annotations.
Here is a link to a video containing audio of much of the speech.
Here is a link to a box set of original recordings of Dr. King's speeches, including Beyond Vietnam.
That speech addresses the military and political actions of the United States government in Vietnam -- but as Dr. King makes abundantly clear, the issues that he is addressing go beyond Vietnam.
The speech addresses a situation that existed in 1967 -- but as we hear his words today we see that the injustices he is addressing go beyond the 1960s.
Here are some particularly hard-hitting quotations from that speech of fifty years ago which each one of us to would do well to consider carefully today.
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America.
[ . . . ]
And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in the rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
[ . . . ]
Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroyed the hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that "America will be" are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
[ . . . ]
We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
[ . . . ]
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?
[ . . . ]
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated must surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.
Surely this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and destruction in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours -- the initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words, and I quote:
"Each day the war goes on the hatred increased in the hearts of the Vietnamese and the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and of militarism."
[ . . . ]
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit [ . . . ].
[ . . . ]
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. [ . . . ] I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin -- we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
[ . . . ]
Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.
[ . . . ]
That is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message -- of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was treacherously murdered exactly one year to the day after giving this speech.
Abundant evidence has proven that he was not murdered by the person on whom the blame for his murder was placed but by a powerful cabal composed of men with deep connections, including segments within the US government.
This fact argues that the decision to murder him on the anniversary of this particular speech was intended as a message, that he had gone beyond the boundaries within which certain forces sought to contain his powerful work (and within which they still seek to contain it).
But Dr. King's message will not and cannot be contained within those boundaries, and it cannot be stopped by those methods. It can only be delayed by our own apathy.
And his message is more urgent and more pertinent today than ever.